With the recent availability of Wi-Fi 6 solutions, the launch of 5G pilot projects and new shared license spectrum policies, many are wondering: Can manufacturing go further down the wireless path? The short answer is yes. The long answer is that there are numerous nuances and complications related to the “when,” “how” and “at what cost” of implementing wireless in manufacturing.

For starters, the manufacturing industry relies on equipment with an expected lifecycle of at least 10 to 15 years. Approximately 80 percent of current factory connectivity is wired. While there is the capability to upgrade from Wi-Fi to Wi-Fi 6 and backwards compatibility, 5G is not as simple a matter. Therefore, 5G upgrades will occur over an extended period as technology investments are refreshed or replaced. 5G user equipment for factories is not readily available at this point since the market is early and standards are still evolving.

For factories, key use cases include mobile workforce, Remote Expert tied to secure plant equipment, workforce location tracking, asset location tracking, wireless machine instrumentation, autonomous vehicles and mobile machines, physical security, workflow optimization and wireless sensification. Other use cases will most likely emerge related to robotics, AR/VR, digital twins and more.

The needs for these various use cases vary in terms of determinism, latency and throughput. One of the top areas of focus in wireless is meeting the low-latency capabilities traditionally tied to wired connectivity and defined by IEEE 802.1Q. Time-Sensitive networking (TSN) or 5G Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communication (URLLC) is tied to applications requiring very low latency from 1 to 10 milliseconds (for example, automation and control systems). To meet the lowest latency provided by TSN of 1 millisecond is very challenging for wireless technologies. There is significant effort in organizations such as 3GPP and 5G-ACIA towards this capability.

Another factor is a factory’s geographical location. The top 10 industrial countries are progressively moving to some type of dedicated spectrum that could support industrial and similar vertical needs. In Germany, for example, companies can bid on and secure private LTE/5G spectrum in 10Mhz blocks for 10-year periods with a renewal option. In a recent announcement, a major German automaker stated that it will run its own 5G network in its factories. With dedicated spectrum, industrial companies can choose between maintaining full control of their network or engaging a service provider to implement and run 5G.

Another option is shared spectrum, such as Citizens Band Radio System (CBRS) in the U.S. CBRS has three user levels: incumbents, priority access licenses (PALs) and general authorization access (GAA). Note that the CBRS is shared, so there is the potential to have service/spectrum interruptions from the incumbents (the US Navy) or PAL users if you are GAA. What’s more, building out a 5G network requires an investment in new radio (NRs), network interface cards (NICs) and end-equipment or network-equipment adaptors.

The “when” of wireless deployment depends on use case(s) and network needs, as well as cost of ownership and service-plan availability of spectrum or SP services to support QoS requirements as a network 5G “slice” or dedicated 5G spectrum.

For manufacturers, a multi-access environment – that is, one combining wired, Bluetooth, LoRa, Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi 6, LTE and 5G – is likely to be the best option. Each offers distinctive advantages depending on the needs and level of control desired. Today, factories are multi-access and will continue to leverage multiple connectivity options into the future.

Build or buy?

Beyond that, manufacturers will face a central question around how to deploy 5G. It’s a variation on the classic build-versus-buy decision: Should a manufacturer secure its own dedicated spectrum and then build and run a private 5G network? Or, should it work with a service provider that can offer the company its own dedicated “slice” of spectrum together with network deployment, operations and support services?

Greater control is the primary benefit of building and maintaining a private network. Among the disadvantages: a steep learning curve of training staff to run a 5G network and the headaches of handling any issues that arise; potentially higher cost for dedicated spectrum 5G equipment; and most likely slower access to the latest-and-greatest features compared to mass-market 5G gear. On the other hand, outsourcing to a service provider will ensure access to the newest technologies while offloading the burdens of day-to-day management but at the cost of losing control of the network.

For manufacturers, the best “how” will depend on the intended use cases. For most, a multi-access environment – coupled with a hybrid approach to the 5G network – could be the best option. There are very different costs and control issues that must be realized in any deployment.

Costs to consider

When it comes to making investments in 5G and/or Wi-Fi 6, there may be a “which comes first?” conundrum. As previously noted, most manufacturers are operating factory floors with predominantly hard-wired equipment. Ripping and replacing or retrofitting to go wireless would be a tough case to make as well as a challenge for the OT team. Yet it may also be challenging to justify investments in advanced technologies such as 5G when little or no equipment can make use of these innovations.

While we foresee manufacturers ultimately going wireless, we believe each company will need to develop a long-term roadmap for how it will get there. It’s similar to the approach we’ve taken at Cisco. We have a constantly evolving roadmap to ensure that our customers can make network investments that are safe and future ready. The roadmap can take you from today all the way to 5G and beyond – helping unlock greater value along the way.

For more details on wireless trends and the different phases of technology adoption, see our new white paper, Wi-Fi 6 and Private LTE/5G Technology and Business Models in Industrial IoT or read the Executive Summary to learn more!